The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article this week in which they excoriated a spam operation that has been taking advantage of the local community in Milwaukee. According to the article, the illegal operation has been calling Milwaukee residents claiming to represent a local law firm by the name of “Anderson and Thompson.”
The spammer claims that they are collecting on an old debt from a legal conflict and that the debt must be paid immediately. Of course, illegal operations based on phone transactions are nothing new.
What is interesting about this case is that the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau suspects that the spammer is using a VoIP phone number to conduct this operation. The idea is that the spammer would be able to get a unique phone number for cheap from a VoIP service provider so they can use this number for the operation, instead of using an easily traceable number like their own home phone number.
The spammer is using a series of three phone numbers, all with a 414 area code, a local Wisconsin area code. This is another telltale sign of a VoIP phone number. VoIP service providers can give customers phone numbers in any area code, regardless of their actual geographical location.
The reason that VoIP service providers give you the option to choose an area code that is different from your actual area is that it is a good way for customers to save money if they need to do a lot of calling with a particular location.For example, if someone lives in New York, but they have a lot of family or a lot of business associates in Chicago, they might want to get a second phone number with a local Chicago area code so their family and associates wouldn’t have to pay long distance fees to call them.
But how can you track a VoIP number?
It may be possible to trace the phone number to a particular IP address through some clever calling around to figure out what Internet service the number is using, and from there they can figure out the physical location of the caller. And though slim, it also may be possible to figure out which VoIP service provider the scammer is using. By doing so, the service provider may be able to find out who bought that phone number; but this may be a nearly impossible task, especially if the scammer is located in a different country, as seems to be the case with this scammer.
It’s no surprise that people have found a way to take advantage of the system and use it for illegal activity. They’ve been doing it with POTS phone numbers for ages. These kinds of scammers try to take advantage of people who are easily overwhelmed by an official-sounding phone call. The scammers hope that they can catch people off guard and confuse them into thinking that they did have some outstanding debt that they had forgotten about, and that a call from a “law firm” will scare them into paying it right away.
The problem with these kinds of scams is that they are difficult to trace and so it can be very tough, even impossible, to catch the scammers. For example, in the case of the Milwaukee scam, residents suspect that the scammer is actually located in a different country. According to Lisa Schiller, the reporter who published the original article, the scammer even mispronounced the word “Milwaukee” when she called him to fact check the article.
But this comes as no surprise. Many scammers won’t use a local phone number. Rather, they will use a blocked number to scam people. These are virtually impossible to trace. So, your best bet is to always pause before receiving a call from an unrecognized number or blocked number. Remember, in most cases people will leave you a message anyway if it is a real call from an important contact.
And if you do answer the phone, always be careful before agreeing to any transactions. If you don’t recognize the name of the organization calling you, you have every right to ask for clarification. Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed. Even if you don’t recognize a caller to whom you do actually owe money, it won’t hurt anything to double-check and ask for clarification.